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The Art and Craft of Conversation


In college, a student learns to do research and submit work that is well informed. We take that with us wherever we go in life. We roll up to a scene, packing light, a smash-and-grab job, professionals of the world of informing ourselves, and we’re our own bosses and our own editors and we’ve studied enough to regulate ourselves. We know when something is well informed and when it isn’t. That’s what a great student does.

When a student strives to educate themselves, by reading and doing research (whether that is assigned or personal), they become well informed. But as their knowledge increases and their perception of what knowledge is begins to shift to broader, more enlightened definitions, it is possible that students start to feel a disconnect between their developing thought functions and how the world is perceived outside of college classrooms and campuses. A student in a college environment can learn an infinite amount of knowledge only to feel like that amount of information can’t be used outside of the university.

The world isn’t a college classroom, nor should it be. So what should students hope to bring to conversations about culture that happen outside of the classroom? Perhaps this question asks what the role of education is in shaping an individual’s mind as opposed to a collective one. And maybe this is asking how relevant students actually are outside of a classroom. What I want to see from more students—in and out of school—is a readiness to again learn how other people are thinking by showcasing their own ability to learn how they are reacting to an ever-changing world.

"We don’t go to school to strictly analyze complicated topics in set parameters."

Image by Good Free Photos

We don’t go to school to strictly analyze complicated topics in set parameters. We go to school to learn how to think and examine how various thought processes change over time, never losing sight of our own ongoing transformation. We guard the knowledge, not by insisting we’re more well informed than everyone, but by bringing it with us when we interact in a wide range of environments, some of which might be completely at odds with an academic agenda. We don’t just acquire knowledge in school, we acquire the history of that knowledge. 

The economist Thorstein Veblen wrote a book titled The Theory of the Leisure Class. It is the work of a sociologist who felt he had observed enough about the upper classes of society to write a whole book about it. And he clearly had. But you can open the book anywhere and read almost any sentence and you’ve read the entire book. He repeats himself and rewords and rephrases and picks up wherever his mind leaves him. There is no beginning, middle, or end beyond there just being a beginning, a middle and an end. The transitions aren’t marked with any masterful shift in topic or tone. He is building as far out as he is building up and so you can’t really decide if he has made a long tower or a high wall. And where are the footnotes, the cited works, the endnotes, the scholarly journals…where is the proof?

For this book, he really didn’t need it. Meaning: it flows and so it works. That is what students should be able to do with their knowledge: use it confidently. Years of research went into writing the book, but the act of researching is mostly demonstrated in Veblen’s flowing, unguarded style. It demonstrated confidence and familiarity. If I were coaching myself through that sort of a process, my notes to myself would sound something like this: share it in a way that isn’t super formal or even organized but showcase it so that people want to share their thoughts as well. I would argue that the articulation of his own observations is even more important than the information contained in the book. 

Or take Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and The Worms. It is a book about the life of a real 16th century Italian man, Menocchio, who works as a miller and has very limited access to information and scholarly resources. He dabbled with certain texts and when he started writing, he began pushing back against religious trends and institutional knowledge which were generally regarded as universal, self-evident truths.

As a result, he paid for his unsubstantiated claims with his life when he was deemed blasphemous—an older form of misinformation. What’s interesting about this book is that, although Ginzburg had to be well informed about how to process and incorporate the concept of the historical archive into a microhistorical text,  his writing style mirrors his central character’s wandering mind. Ginzburg too, even with the support of an academic look at the historical archive, makes bold, theoretical claims about the time period and the life of Menocchio. 

Consider Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari. This is an incredibly well-informed text but one that ultimately asks us to consider our own familiarity with how the world naturally evolves, and the central questions of the book (interpretive problems) rely on the curiosity of the audience in order to examine the history of mankind in such a concise format. Even though the text is well-informed, it doesn’t synthesize information in a way that lets the reader mine for more evidence. It asks the reader to consider the possibility of its theoretical rhetoric based on the evidence that it presents and the imagination of the reader. 

"Adopting these sorts of literary strategies, strategies which transcend scholarly writing, can make niche information very accessible and interesting to others..."

These books can provide valuable insight into the role of a college student during and, especially, after college. Students have to be familiar with a range of thought processes in order to adopt one as their own. Keep in mind that while there is something well informed about these texts (Veblen, Ginzburg, Harari), they all rely heavily on the personal interest and perspective of the author and the reader to bring something new to the conversation. They are an example of how academic thought can be accessible for people outside of academia. They are all based on a lifetime of research, but they are conversational in tone, meandering at times, and many of the ideas shared are not always fully formed. 

Adopting these sorts of literary strategies, strategies which transcend scholarly writing, can make niche information very accessible and interesting to others, especially when shared in a variety of formats. This doesn’t just benefit people outside of campus walls - it also benefits the student.

Information and knowledge that has no way of expressing itself is largely wasted and contributes to the feeling of disconnect that students often begin to feel after their years of hard work in college. It would be nice to see more students sharing their own opinions while acknowledging the journey they took to acquire their perspectives, much like these authors. At least that is, in part, what students should be trying to do with their degrees.

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